MY LAST DAY IN HARLEM
by Andreas Economakis
I enter a dirty, run down bathroom. My hair and blue work clothes are covered in white dust. The wall is pockmarked with holes, sprayed with messy graffiti and blood. My steel-toe boots crunch over spent syringes and a bunch of empty crack vials with colorful plastic caps.
Drilling sounds and faint Salsa music can be heard in the background. A door slams and a couple can be heard arguing and screaming at each other. Then a baby starts wailing.
I take a leak and approach the cracked bathroom mirror. I look at myself. Red eyes, tangled hair, unshaven. I exit the bathroom and head toward the living room.
“You know, I’m going to miss this place,” I say as I walk down the dark dirty hallway.
“This dump?” Ernesto calls out from the living room.
I enter the living room, which is in the process of renovation. Tools and building supplies are stacked here and there. A small radio plays Willie Colon.
Ernesto is on a ladder, swaying his hips to the music as he dismantles a light fixture. Thin stiletto mustache, angular Puerto Rican features. He has a V-shaped body-builder’s torso, huge muscular arms and a powerful neck. Strangely skinny legs in tight jeans, the same blue NYC Department of Housing Preservation and Development work shirt as me. Difference is he’s clean, spotless.
“The City should tear this shit down instead of trying to renovate it. What’s the fucking use anyway? This place is going to be trashed the moment we turn it over, right?”
“Depends…” I reply.
“On what? They should blow up the whole block. Cono! Filthy crackheads! How can these people live like this?” Ernesto says, snipping a wire.
“Ernesto, man, it’s the culture of poverty. Like the reverse Midas touch.”
“The reverse… what? Did you just smoke a joint, cabron?” he says, looking at me with a quizzical smile.
I pick up a tattered old black and white photo. An elderly Harlem couple smile arm in arm on the street, circa 1930’s. They are dressed in their Sunday finest. A clean, safe, grainy world. Frozen in time. At least, frozen in this frame.
“Just as wealth begets wealth, so it goes with poverty,” I say.
“Wealth beget… Shit! Is that what they teach you crackers in college?” he quips. “Hand me the crow bar.”
I rummage through Ernesto’s heavy toolbox, looking for the crowbar.
“It’s been planned this way. They want to keep the people anesthetized and divided. Racism, sexism… all the “isms” really, they’re just a weapon created by the powers in charge to increase their profits.”
“Cubism too?” Ernesto says, smiling. I smile back.
“And they don’t even need to wield the ‘ism’ weapon themselves. It’s a like virus. They just hand it over to people like you and me and we turn it on each other. We become self-replicating stereotypes while they provide the junk that destroys us at a profit. They wait until we chop each other up into little pieces and then they have us for dinner.”
“Shut up, maricon! You’re making me hungry!”
I finally find the crowbar and pull it out.
“Have you ever wondered why there are so many liquor stores and funeral homes in Harlem? And why is it easier to buy crack here than pizza?” I say, extending the crowbar toward Ernesto.
“Crackheads don’t eat pizza, bro. They’re never hungry,” Ernesto replies with laughing eyes.
One hand on the fixture wire, Ernesto grabs the crow bar, sending a jolt of electricity through my body. I fall on my ass in a cloud of sheetrock dust. Ernesto bursts out laughing.
“Wake up, dude!” Ernesto yells.
“Jesus!” is all my shocked lungs are able to squeeze out. Ernesto steps down off the ladder.
“A full year here and you didn’t learn anything college boy!” he says, helping me up onto my feet. He tries to dust me off but quickly gives up.
“Ich! Hopeless,” he says, a disgusted look on his face. He looks to clean his hands instead. He then looks at his watch.
“Shit! Let’s pack it up. Time to get the fuck out of this rat hole,” he says, excitedly.
Ernesto pulls his shirt off, grabs his bag and dances to the bathroom, in tune with the music. His muscular back is covered with a huge tattoo of a bald eagle in flight with a bleeding heart in its talons. The heart has an American flag printed on it.
“I can’t believe it’s your last day, bro! Fucking blowing this dump! How does it feel?”
“Like a refreshing bolt of electricity,” I reply. “Jolting!”
“You know, I’m going to miss your do goody good Leave it to Beaver humor…”
“You’re going to miss electrocuting me!” I say, trying to dust myself off.
“That’s right bro! Call it the reverse Puerto Rican touch! Death row revenge! It’s about time we turned up the juice on you crackers!”
Ernesto stalls in the bathroom, horrified by the filth.
“Oh fuck!” he cringes.
Careful not to touch anything, he starts washing himself by the sink. I start packing up his tools.
“So, you excited? All that sun, the chiquitas…” he asks over the trickling bathroom water.
“I’m psyched to see Marisa again,” I reply.
“It was about time, bro! You’ve been going on like Groucho… Marx and shit! You get all fucking political when you haven’t gotten laid!”
Ernesto shines me a big sunny smile from the dark bathroom.
“Just listen to you,” he says. “You’re like a god damn pocket revolution about to go off. Yeah bro, you’re ripe! Ready to drop off the tree ripe if you ask me.”
“Ripe and ready to join all the other fruits in Cali-forni-ay, huh?” I smile back.
Ernesto looks pensive.
“You know what I like about California? It’s clean out there. Sunny and clean. That’s why everybody’s got a big ass smile on their face. Just like in Chips. Not like this dump!”
Ernesto pauses as he inspects himself in the mirror. “My man, Eric Estrada,” he adds. I’m not sure if he’s just mentioned the actor because he’s a symbol of California or if he’s referring to his mirrored self. Ernesto could easily play in the movies. He’s got the look. He’s got all the right angles. Cameras love guys like Ernesto. And Eric Estrada.
Transported if ever so briefly to the Golden State, I start humming a Woody Guthrie tune as I finish collecting all the tools.
“California is a garden of Eden, a paradise to live in or see. But believe it or not you won’t find it so hot if you ain’t got the do-re-mi…”
“What, is that from the Bible or something?” Ernesto asks as he starts to brush his teeth.
“You could say that…”
“You know, I never could figure out what a college-educated, Upper West Side boy from fucking Europe and shit is doing over on this side of hell. I mean, shit, what’s the point of college if you end up in the ghetto?” Ernesto wonders, blue-green toothpaste suds overflowing out of his mouth.
“Depends on what you mean by end up in the ghetto.”
Ernesto spits the toothpaste out.
“I mean end up in the ghetto, bro. Here. Rubbing elbows with the living dead. This is where we are, right?” He wipes his face with a towel.
“How do you mean?” I ask.
Ernesto dries himself, puts on a fresh shirt, combs himself carefully and splashes some cologne on.
“Questions, questions. But who’s got the answers maricon?” He emerges from the bathroom, looking fresh. He smells like springtime in deep winter.
“You got a date or something?” I ask, my nose tingling in the minty chemical breeze.
“What? Just ‘cause I work in the filth means I gotta be filthy?” He looks at me with a frown on his face. “I mean, just look at you, bro! Aaach! You look like a… god damn… junkie ran over you.”
“I’d get jumped in a second if I walked out of here looking all fresh like you.”
“Homeboys would be lining up to bust all over your cracker ass!” he says with a wide grin on his face, air fucking just in case I didn’t get it.
“And what if God is black?” I ask.
“Then your ass better be the size of Texas, bro!” Ernesto quips right back, slapping his skinny leg with his muscular hand in full glee.
Some sort of “Dennis Dalton meets the Mahatma Gandhi for drinks in Hailie Selasie’s Ethiopia” thing takes over me and I turn toward V-Man with a skeptical look.
“What if we go to heaven and we, all our lives, have treated the black man as an inferior, and god is there, and we look up and he is not white? He’s black. What then is our response?” I ask, quoting Robert Kennedy (how did I remember this? I mean, I’m from Greece…). What’s gotten in to me?
Ernesto sizes me up with a glint in his eyes. He smiles, a small pointy curve of a smile barely visible on the corner of his mouth, like a small and concealed fish-gutting knife.
“There you go again, bro!” he says, preparing himself like the Pro Wrestler of all orators. He snorts. I take a step back.
“Well shit, first off I’d ask God to put down the motherfucking crack pipe he’s been sucking on like a titty all these years and explain to me why the fuck he’s been torturing his people so hard. Shit! That’s what I would ask the crazy motherfucker! And I’ve got a million other questions for him too! Like what’s up with slavery and prostitution and AIDS and poverty and kids dying of hunger and disease and thirst while all the fucking Nazis controlling all the wealth and power party it up in our faces. If God were black! Where the fuck do you come up with this stuff, homeboy?”
Not sure if Ernesto is joking or serious, I watch him stomp his way to the door. He grabs his heavy toolbox like it’s feather light and exits, leaving me all alone in the dusty room. The familiar sounds of the building breathing with life come back, making me feel all the more alone. I look around one last time and head for the door.
I slowly exit into the rundown hallway. Syringes and crack vials, broken walls, filth and blood and graffiti everywhere. Hard to believe people actually live in this building.
Ernesto steps out of the dark, a shiny American padlock in his hands. He pulls the chain around the doorframe with force and closes it with the padlock. He pushes and kicks the door hard to make sure it can’t be forced.
“Don’t know why we fucking bother. Fucking zombies always get it, right?” he says. He turns and starts walking down the stairs.
A nearby door is unbolted and a little old lady in her seventies cautiously peeks out into the hallway. She makes eye contact with me and quickly closes her door in fear. I turn and follow Ernesto down the stairs, leaving a trail of dusty white boot prints.
This piece is part of a collection of stories on blindness entitled: The Blindness of Life.
Copyright © 2010, Andreas Economakis. All rights reserved.
For more stories by Andreas Economakis click on the author’s name below.